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DoD Maps Out Future of Drones

launch of a Shadow Unmanned Aerial Vehicle

WASHINGTON — While the Defense Department’s unmanned weapons systems no longer operate outside the “circle of warfare trust,” they still have plenty of room for improvement, says a new DoD report intended to guide the development of military drones, robots and other autonomous systems.

Troops today put their trust in unmanned systems able to “shoulder burdens in warfare mission areas unforeseen only a few years ago,” the report said, adding that “unmanned systems are now vital components of an operational commander’s tool kit.”

That reliance will grow in the coming decades, according to DoD’s “Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap,” which was written to establish a “technological vision” for the next 25 years of development and integration of the systems into the force.

The already-wide use of unmanned systems — for surveillance, air strikes and IED disposal, among other uses — became feasible because of advancements like better batteries, more powerful computers, better sensors and overall increased reliability, the report said.

But further advances are needed in a number of areas, it said. Among them are a need for greater modularity and interoperability between different systems, better cyber security to protect data and prevent hijacking of systems, and more resiliency to keep platforms mission-ready.

Autonomy — the ability to carry missions or actions without human control — is another key area in need of development, the report said.

Unmanned systems in use on the battlefield today, from bomb-defusing robots to aerial drones, are controlled by human operators. The more complex systems require large teams of people to keep them operational and to analyze intelligence and surveillance data they gather.

More cognitive, self-sufficient robots that “take the ‘man’ out of unmanned,” as the report put it, may be able to save significant money for DoD in the future.

“Currently personnel costs are the greatest single cost in DoD, and unmanned systems must strive to reduce the number of personnel required to operate and maintain the systems,” the report said.

While unmanned or autonomous systems aren’t strictly necessary, the report said, autonomous robots also may be more suitable for some dangerous or extremely monotonous duties that would challenge human powers of concentration.

But it also acknowledged concerns about the potential for computers to take over certain functions — including weaponized robots with the power to make life-and-death decisions.

“The question ‘When will systems be fielded with the capabilities that will enable them to operate without the man in the loop?’ is often followed by questions that extend quickly beyond mere engineering challenges into legal, policy or ethical issues,” the report said.

Work on autonomous systems that raise such questions would be done with great deliberation, and following DoD policies, the report said.

In addition to sorting out the place of human operators in controlling future unmanned systems, military robots of the future need more and better weaponry, the report said, including a selection of diminutive missiles suitable for mounting on drones, and futuristic explosives that rely on nanotechnology to create outsized explosions.

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